Lies, Incorporated

Lies, Incorporated: The World of Post-Truth Politicsby Ari Rabin-Havt and Media Matters is an interesting book. I’ve been reading a few books on media recently (including The Attention Merchants and Rupert Murdoch). I’d hoped that Lies Incorporated would be an insight into the relationship between other forms of power and media.

To some extent it is. It talks about how particular groups can use think-tanks and other organisation to influence public debate, through the media and other channels.

Unfortunately, though, the book isn’t a deep dive into the theory, or framework of how that might work. Instead it steps through individual case studies, one by one. Tragically, these are all so similar that the repetition doesn’t engender deeper understanding.

There are some interesting anecdotes though. This is interesting if you’re researching one of the particular topics, and it has a particular depth on smoking, but otherwise this isn’t one I’d recommend.

… in 1935, during “the last two weeks of June”, a flood of eight hundred thousand “letters and wires heaped up in congressional offices.” This would have been an impressive display of public interest in the issue, except the messages were fake. After receiving hundreds of messages, Pennsylvania congressman Denis Driscoll thought they seemed irregular. He replied to several of his constituents only to be told they had not sent him the telegrams.

These fake constitute contacts led to an investigation headed by then Senator and future Supreme Court justice Hugo Black. It found that Western Union had coordinated with Associated Gas and Electric to send the fake messages. Many of the names were taken “from the early pages of the city directory.” Others were acquired by paying “a messenger boy named Elmer” three cents per signature secured for the project.


These letters [from an NAACP Branch, a women’s group and an ageing advocacy group] were forgeries–created by a public affairs firm, Bonner & Associates, which had been subcontracted by the ACCCE. The firm ultimately claimed the fraudulent letters were the work of a rogue employee, who was terminated, and went back to business as usual.  

Media and voter behaviour

A little while ago the thought occurred to me that although I assume, or take it for granted, that media has some impact on people, I didn’t know what the research actually said about how media affected voting. There’s plenty out there about the psychology of advertising – but less came to mind for media and politics.

After a short burst of googling, here are some of the more interesting pieces I found:

  • A blog post digs a little into causality, and concludes that there are two-way relationships between basically everything.

My sense is that what we have here is a feedback loop. Does media attention increase a candidate’s standing in the polls? Yes. Does a candidate’s standing in the polls increase media attention? Also yes

  • A study run in 2005-2006 randomly gave free newspapers to households. While only run in one area of the US, the result showed that giving either a left-leaning or right-leaning paper resulted in a higher Democratic vote. Given the geographic constraints, hard to know how broadly applicable this is.
  • A paper that examined data from 1996 and 2000 (that seemed to be one of the more frequently cited) found that Fox News increased Republican vote share.
  • A 2015 paper (that I haven’t downloaded) concludes that public interest and media coverage both influence each other in the US Republican primary.
  • A 2016 analysis of UKIP concludes that media coverage does drive voter support.
  • John Sides argues that the media drives voter behaviour – it’s inconceivable that it wouldn’t.

It’s just that most of us, most of the time, have to rely on the media for information about the world, information that helps us determine which issues — or candidates — are worth paying attention to.  What else are we going to do?  Most of us don’t have the opportunity to talk to the candidates ourselves. And it’s not like we’re going to conduct our own original research (“Honey, I’ve spent the day reading 12 newspapers and every candidate’s Web page. Here’s what I’ve found.”)

So. Those are the articles I found in a quick search. It’s not a meta-analysis, or a literature review. If you find anything more interesting or more detailed, let me know. It’s an interesting question.


A few random things:

  • I like 538’s work, and I particularly like this piece on the Comey letterThey clearly set out their logic in arguing their logic that while their are multiple factors that impact any election outcome, the Comey letter was a clear impact, and one that was significant enough to almost certainly tip the scales:

The Comey letter wasn’t necessarily the most important factor in Clinton’s defeat, although it’s probably the one we can be most certain about. To explain the distinction, consider Clinton’s decision to run a highly negative campaign that focused on branding Trump as an unacceptable choice. One can imagine this being a huge, election-losing mistake: Trump’s negatives didn’t need any reinforcing, whereas Clinton should have used her resources to improve her own image. But one could also argue that Clinton’s strategy worked, up to a point: Trump was exceptionally unpopular and needed a lot of things to break his way to win the election despite that. The range of possible impacts from this strategic choice is wide; perhaps it cost Clinton several percentage points, or perhaps it helped her instead. The range from the Comey letter is narrower, by contrast, and easier to measure. It was a discrete event that came late in the campaign and had a direct effect on the polls.

The standard way to dismiss the letter’s impact is to say that Clinton should never have let the race get that close to begin with. But the race wasn’t that close before the Comey letter; Clinton had led by about 6 percentage points and was poised to win with a map like this one, including states such as North Carolina and Arizona (but not Ohio or Iowa).8My guess is that the same pundits who pilloried Clinton’s campaign after the Comey letter would have considered it an impressive showing and spoken highly of her tactics.

Thus, you have to assess the letter’s impact to do an honest accounting of the Clinton campaign. If you’re in the “Big Comey” camp and think Clinton would have won by 5 or 6 percentage points without the letter, it’s hard to fault Clinton all that much. Even given all of Trump’s deficiencies as a candidate, that’s a big margin for an election in which the “fundamentals” pointed toward a fairly close race. “Little Comey” believers have more room to assign blame to Clinton’s campaign, in addition to Comey (and the media’s coverage of him).

Facebook claimed the report was misleading, assuring the public that the company does not “offer tools to target people based on their emotional state”. If the intention of Facebook’s public relations spin is to give the impression that such targeting is not even possible on their platform, I’m here to tell you I believe they’re lying through their teeth …

In a white paper authored by the company’s security team and published on Thursday, the company detailed well-funded and subtle techniques used by nations and other organizations to spread misleading information and falsehoods for geopolitical goals. These efforts go well beyond “fake news”, the company said, and include content seeding, targeted data collection and fake accounts that are used to amplify one particular view, sow distrust in political institutions and spread confusion.

More media pieces

There are always going to be other analyses of particular aspects of the recent US election. The media angle is one I find particularly interesting – and this piece by the New York Times Magazine, with a focus on relationships between CNN and Trump, is fascinating.

Yet more books

The circleby Dave Eggers

I enjoyed The circle. It flows well, and has an interesting feel to it. And while I don’t think it’s likely to prove a timeless classic in the same way that 1984 has, for example, I think it’s a really interesting attempt to think through what a universal flow of information, and the accompanying lack of privacy, looks like.

I think one thing that Eggers does well is to try to be sympathetic to the people who are diving in to the system – the ones who are in favour of recording and broadcasting everything.

I don’t agree with everything Eggers argues – there are powerful uses for social media, particularly in enabling people to have lateral conversations that were previously impossible. But it’s worth thinking through some of the issues he’s thinking about.

Also, for what it’s worth – I’ve picked out particular quotes because I think they’re interesting, but that isn’t an endorsement.

At times it can feel a little belaboured (particularly the transparent deep sea shark that eats everything, and the debates that Mercer and the protagonist have), but it’s still definitely worth a read.

‘… I mean, all this stuff you’re involved in, it’s all gossip. It’s people talking about each other behind their backs. That’s the vast majority of this social media, all these reviews, all these comments. Your tools have elevated gossip, hearsay and conjecture to the level of valid, mainstream communication …’

‘… Here, though, there are no oppressors. No one’s forcing you to do this. You willingly tie yourself to these leashes. And you willingly become utterly socially autistic. You no longer pick up on basic human communication clues. You’re at a table with three humans, all of whom are looking at you and trying to talk to you, and you’re staring at a screen, searching for strangers in Dubai …’

Increasingly, she found it difficult to be off-campus anyway. There were homeless people, and there were attendant and assaulting smells, and there were machines that didn’t work, and floors and seats that had not been cleaned, and there was, everywhere, the chaos of an orderless world. The Circle was helping to improve it, she knew, and so many of these things were being addressed – homelessness could be helped or fixed, she knew, once the gamification of shelter allotment and public housing in general was complete; they were working on this in the Nara Period [a building on the company campus] – but in the meantime, it was increasingly troubling to be amid the madness outside the gates of the Circle. Walking through San Francisco, or Oakland, or San Jose, or any city, really, seemed more and more like a Third World experience, with unnecessary filth, and unnecessary strife and unnecessary errors and inefficiencies – on any city block, a thousand problems correctible through simple enough algorithms and the application of available technology and willing members of the digital community …

‘… I mean, it was like setting up a guillotine in the public square. You don’t expect a thousand people to line up to put their heads in it …’

‘… Now, you and I both know that if you can control the flow of information, you can control everything. You can control most of what anyone sees and knows. If you want to bury some piece of information, permanently, that’s two seconds’ work. If you want to ruin anyone, that’s five minutes’ work. How can anyone rise up against the Circle if they control all the information and access to it? They want everyone to have a Circle account, and they’re well on their way to making it illegal not to. What happens then? What happens when they control all searches, and have full access to all data about every person? When they know every move everyone makes? If all monetary transactions, all health and DNA information, every piece of one’s life, good or bad, when every word uttered flows through one channel?’ …

‘… Most people would trade everything they know, everyone they know-they’d trade it all to know they’ve been seen, and acknowledged, that they might even be remembered. We all know we die. We all know the world is too big for us to be significant. So all we have is the hope of being seen, or heard, even for a moment.’

Manufacturing consentby Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky

I’ve been reading a bit about the media recently. I wanted to read a little about the political economy of the media, but this is one of the few that I found. I’d love to read a few others.

I didn’t read the whole book – I focussed on the theoretical chapter at the start of the book; the rest seemed to be largely examples working through the implications of the theory.

Essentially, Herman and Chomsky argue that a set of economic imperatives operating at a few levels ensure that a media ecosystem will tend to obscure particular points of view or issues. This isn’t to say that it will be completely effectively, but that there will be a systematic bias in how information filters through different levels in a media ecosystem.

It’s an interesting argument. I’m looking forward to reading more on media theory when I get the chance.

The propaganda model, and the institutional arrangement that it reflects, suggests that the same forces that preclude competition among the parties on issues on which the major investors agree, will also dominate media choices and rule out “mass deliberation and expression” on those issues …

We have long argued that the “naturalness” of these processes, with inconvenient facts allowed sparingly and within the proper framework  of assumptions, and fundamental dissent virtually excluded from the mass media (but permitted in a marginalized press), makes for a propaganda system that is far more credible and effective in putting over a patriotic agenda than one with official censorship …

The essential ingredients of our propaganda model, or set of news “filters,” fall under the following headings: (1) the size, concentrated ownership, owner wealth and profit orientation of the dominant mass-media firms; (2) advertising as the primary income source of the mass media; (3) the reliance of the media on information provided by government, business, and “experts” funded and approved by these primary sources and agents of power; (4) “flak” as a means of disciplining the media; and (5) “anticommunism” as a national religion and control mechanism …

… an advertising-based system will tend to drive out of existence or into marginality the media companies and types that depend on revenue from sales alone. With advertising, the free market does not yield a neutral system in which final buyer choice decides. The advertisers’ choices influence media prosperity and survival. The ad-based media receive an advertising subsidy that gives them a price-marketing quality edge, which allows them to encroach on and further weaken their ad-free (or ad-disadvantaged) rivals …

… The idea that the drive for large audiences makes the mass media “democratic” thus suffers from the initial weakness that its political analogue is a voting system weighted by income! The power of advertisers over television programming stems from the simple fact that they buy and pay for the programs –they are the “patrons” who provide the media subsidy. As such, the media compete for their patronage …

The mass media are drawn into a symbiotic relationship with powerful sources of information by economic necessity and reciprocity of interest. The media need a steady, reliable flow of the raw material of news. They have daily news demands and imperative news schedules that they must meet. They cannot afford to have reporters and cameras at all places where important stories may break. Economics dictates that they concentrate their resources where significant news often occurs, where important rumors and leaks abound, and where regular press conferences are held … “only other bureaucracies can satisfy the input needs of a news bureaucracy” …

In effect, the large bureaucracies of the powerful subsidize the mass media, and gain special access by their contribution to reducing the media’s costs of acquiring the raw materials of, and producing, news. The large entities that that provide this subsidy become “routine” news sources and have privileged access to the gates. Non-routine sources must struggle for access, and may be ignored by the arbitrary decision of the gatekeepers …

… a propaganda model suggests that the “societal purpose” of the media is to inculcate and defend the economic, social and political agenda of privileged groups that dominate the domestic society and the state …

Academic papers

As well as books, it’s nice to get a chance to look at some parts of the academic literature. Particularly as I’m looking forward to reading The Rise and Decline of Nations, which sounds fascinating. But there’s always a risk that a book that will make its way into the popular consciousness decades later will by then have been discredited in the research community (Freud’s work is an obvious example for me).

So it was nice to see that Heckelman has done the world a service by undertaking a meta-review, and he concludes that Olson’s work still broadly holds up:

In the quarter century since the publication of Mancur Olson’s Rise and Decline of Nations, a large literature has evolved testing the central hypothesis regarding Olson’s thesis on institutional sclerosis. These tests have taken the form of both econometric regression analysis involving a sample of various nations and detailed narrative case studies of specific nations. Tests have appeared in both economics and political science journals as well as in collected volumes and independent books, performed primarily by authors from America and Europe. A review of over 50 separate works reveals that, on the whole, the theory of institutional sclerosis is generally but certainly not universally supported. No systematic bias in favor of or opposition to Olson is found to have arisen on the basis of methodology, publication outlet, or authorship location.